In his article Is Enlightenment Compatible With Sex Scandals?, Scott Alexander writes:
I don’t think many modern teachers say enlightenment makes you morally perfect. But I think at least some of them say it makes you free from craving or desire. And repeatedly cheating on your wife doesn’t seem like the action of someone who’s free from desire. It doesn’t even seem like someone whose desire has been moderately decreased.
He was talking about the fact that almost all the “famous” teachers of Buddhism in America have had a scandal. What is it with “enlightened” gurus and sex scandals?
This post is a soft follow up to my post on Spiritual Imposter Syndrome. If you haven’t read it, the tldr is:
While spiritual people like me are scared of putting ourselves out there because Boohoo I’m not good enough yet there are certain people, mainly narcissistic types, who have no problem shouting loudly how enlightened they are.
Which leads to a situation that the people talking most loudly about spirituality are the least qualified to talk about it.
I want to look at why gurus go bad. Why do so many have scandals, mainly of the genital-out-of-control type?
There are 2 main types of guru abuses:
1. Where people had some genuine spiritual experience, but later failed to live up to the moral standard expected of them
2. Spiritual Predators — People whose only goal, from the start, had been to line their pockets and take sexual advantage of vulnerable people.
In this post, I will only look at the 1st type of failure. I may address the 2nd type in a future post.
The Enlightenment Line
In the previous post, I talked about how we think enlightenment is a line, like in a race. If you cross the line, you are enlightened. If you fail, you turn into a stupid Trump supporter. Here is a hi-tech image I spent hours creating to demo this:
This black and white thinking leads us to believe there can only be 2 binary states– enlightened/spiritual or materialistic. And nothing in between.
While in truth it is more like a spectrum, with people at multiple points all along the line.
Most of us fall on the spectrum somewhere. We may not be 100% Buddha Level Enlightened (BLE, yes I made it up), but that doesn’t mean we are at the extreme left either.
My Own Experience
As I’ve written in my About section, my life changed in 2017, when after moments of extreme stress and depression, something sort of broke thru. I realised I was the Deathless and the Infinite, and that I was one with the universe.
But I still had rent to pay. I was still broke and looking for a job. Many times I said, “Fuck this One-ness, gimme a job instead”. I still had to deal with rude landlords and rude bosses. I still had to spend 45 minutes trying to cancel my car insurance when they increased the premium for no reason. I still got irritated with my wife and kids.
I had to go to work and sitting in a boring meeting where some self-obsessed twat spent 45 minutes going blah-blah-blah I’m so important and I was thinking Man, wasn’t I the Deathless and the Infinite this weekend? So why do I want to strangle him now?
My problems didn’t go away after my experience. All my negative tendencies came back a million times stronger and I had to spend the next 5-6 years overcoming them (something thats still ongoing!) That’s why I lay so much stress on not pushing our problems under the rug or hiding behind the The world is an illusion bullshit.
So even though my experience changed me internally, it didn’t change my outer material life.
I have spent the last 6-7 years thinking about how / why this can be, and this is the best I can come up with:
We all know about the iceberg, how more than 90% of it is below the water?
In the same way, through grace we see the Light. This grace enlightens a part of our mind. But like the iceberg, only a small of the part of the mind is enlightened. The rest, like the deep ocean, remains in the dark.
But what is worse, this darkness rushes up towards the light. And its motives aren’t always clear. Part of the darkness wants to swallow the light, like the demons/evil gods in ancient myths wanted to swallow the sun. Part of it wants to be relieved of the pain and hope the Light can heal it. But in its haste and hurry, it sometimes ends up strangling the very light it thinks will save us.
And so the student has to be extremely careful. It’s like walking on a sword’s edge barefoot, like an Indian saying goes.
Why Do Gurus have scandals?
I hope you understand the long detour I took to explain how a person can have genuine spiritual experiences, and yet have darkness in their heart.
Another big reason is: Most traditional paths teach Spiritual Bypassing. They ignored their darkness, hoping (incorrectly) that they can leave the darkness behind and go to some Spiritual “heaven”. Most religions also teach this world is a sin, or a dirty place, and so it makes no sense trying to improve ourselves (or the world).
Let me go one step ahead: Darkness IS our Natural State. Unless you are taking active steps to combat the darkness in you, the darkness is winning.
The Laws of Thermodynamics say that chaos always increases in a system. If you want order, you have to add in energy. Our minds are similar: They are in a natural state of Chaos (to use the Gitas term, Tamas or Darkness [LINK Todo]) and we have to expand a lot of energy to stay out of it.
Of course, at a point it becomes easier to stay in the Light, but any darkness we are not willing to look at will at some point come back to haunt us.
Adyashanti said it best in an interview. Someone asked him, are you enlightened? He said, This question cannot be answered. The only thing I can say is: Am I awake in this moment?
Should you ignore teachers who fail?
It depends. If they personally abuse students, then I would avoid joining their cult.
Often when I write, I am “inspired” by my Higher Self. It’s like an external force takes over and guides me on what/how to write. Eckhart Tolle has written how his most famous book, The Power of Now, was written in a state of inspiration, when his thinking mind was in a silent state.
This is even accepted in the scientific community. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a whole book called Flow on it.
So I, personally, would not necessarily ignore a book/video/audio by a teacher who made a mistake. Because it is possible the work they created was channeled from the Universal Intelligence, and any later failure was of the egoic personality.
The Guru as Celebrity
Another thing we need to keep in mind is, Gurus are often treated as celebrities. This leads to both hero worship on the one side and a very vicious attempt to tear them down on the other. As with celebrities, the truth is usually in the middle.
Just like with celebrities– Gurus are treated more like Taylor Swift than Jesus or Buddha.
And I can’t just close with one Swiftie meme!
I won’t name names, as I don’t want too much controversy, but some of the criticism of famous Gurus is so over the top you have to wonder what the motives of the critics is.
One famous Youtube female teacher had a documentary made about her that made her look like a horrible, manipulative person. Later on, it was found out that the documentary makers had edited huge sections, like taking a 20 minute clip and editing it down to a 2 minute one, but in such a way that made the teacher looked like a bitch.
Many people criticised this manipulative editing, but it didn’t get as much news attention as the original hit job did (due to the way the media works– a constant negativity bias). But if you search for that teacher in Google, the top result is her name + cult leader. In effect, her reputation has been ruined.
We don’t need to worship gurus like rockstars, but neither should we go looking for (or making up) scandals about them. They have personal lives that might not always be perfect but that does not dilute the teachings.
(And a reminder, in this post I am not talking about Spiritual Predators, whose goal has always been to f*ck with others, literally and figuratively).
So why do Gurus have so many scandals? Because
a) We misunderstand enlightenment. It’s not a one shot affair. A person can have genuine spiritual experiences but still have darkness in them
b) Gurus are treated like celebrities, and this leads to all the mess and psychological nonsense celebrity culture gives us
a) Look at the teaching, not the teacher. Don’t get sucked into a personality cult.
Jesus/Buddha/Krishna have said all there is to say about spirituality, anybody claiming to have any “secret” knowledge is just bullshitting you. All the guru can give you is advice on how to apply the ancient wisdom in your modern life.
b) I personally treat any spiritual teacher the same as I would a tennis coach (or any coach). Would your coach ask you to :
i) Worship their photo? Touch his feet?
ii) Come back to their room for “special” lessons?
iii) Donate your earnings to them or join their gang?
Mastering meditation is hard, but so is mastering the piano or juggling or performing brain surgery. Anyone who says or thinks that mastering meditation makes you better than others is stuck in a form of spiritual arrogance.
If you feel a little low after reading this article, here’s a picture of baby Yoda to cheer you up: